What I learnt from surviving meningitis
By: Christopher Cookson
Last Modified: 30-3-2020 8:27
The year was 1996. I was in my mid twenties, and pretty fit, although struggled to find permanent work. One day I remember cycling out to Pukaka Valley, walking a good way up the Mount Robertson track, coming home to Witherlea, then doing a grand loop up Mount Vernon and around the back of the Wither Hills Farm Park, just because I had time on my hands.
Telecom had just launched it's XTRA consumer dialup internet service, at $6.95 per hour I think, but what was novel, was there was no data charge, unlike most other services of the time. I was one of the first to sign up, as I'd just launched my own computer service business, and access to online information was incredibly useful.
I'd also bought my first mobile phone, an analogue Motorola flip phone, which I bought a second battery for to give it a standby time of all of 24 hours. Texting wasn't even a thing back then, let alone mobile internet.
I'd earned quite a bit of money working double shifts in an apple pack house running a computerised grading machine, but I knew that the work was seasonal, and I'd soon be back without an income in Blenheim, where employment seemed to be hard to come by, especially if you were an introvert with a bit of social anxiety, who found making phone calls and knocking on doors of total strangers like some kind of torturous inquisition punishment.
I figured that if I found it hard to go to other people, then maybe if I put an ad in the Yellow Pages, then they would come to me, and I'd know that they were already interested in what I could offer if they made the first move. It was a bit risky, and I didn't know if it would work, but it was better than becoming reliant on WINZ again, who seemed to regard unemployment like some kind of crime.
One day in late June, I was feeling unwell, and made an appointment to see my GP. I presented with flu like symptoms, and a headache. My GP didn't find anything overly specific wrong, and I came home. That night, the headache got worse, and I started vomiting in the middle of the night. My flatmate called an emergency doctor who came and looked at me, and gave me an injection of something, and I think said to see a doctor in the morning if I wasn't better.
Next morning, an elderly gentleman who knew me from church called around to see how I was, as I think I'd mentioned the previous day I wasn't feeling well. He was a friend, but I think he'd wanted me to look at his computer or something, and I'd said I wasn't up to it. I protested that I was fine, although I could barely walk, but he took over, and bundled me into the car and took me off to the doctors' surgery.
I think I was seen in the waiting room, and this time there was a sense of urgency when the GP saw me. A rash had developed, and suddenly an ambulance was on its way, I was off to hospital and into isolation. My memories are a bit vague for obvious reasons, but apparently I was dying, and that was what was told to my parents by a doctor with a little bit of a reputation for diagnosing anything with any degree of uncertainty as a psychiatric disorder, so if he thought I was dying, I probably was.
I do remember being dosed up on some pretty powerful pain relief that didn't actually relieve much pain, and having a huge and very painful needle jabbed into my spine to take a sample that confirmed the diagnosis of meningococcal disease.
Like Covid-19, the symptoms in the early stages of meningitis can be similar to many other common infections that only result in mild illnesses, so at a time of the year when medical staff are extremely busy seeing many patients with seasonal illnesses, in its early stages, it is easy to miss. Luckily for me, having a bacterial infection rather than a virus meant that antibiotics could save me if I didn't die first, but it would be a race against time. Although many people can carry the bacteria that causes the infection with no ill effects, it's still considered a contagious disease, so I was kept in isolation as the intravenous antibiotics began to do their work, and everyone who came into my hospital room had to be dressed in protective clothing.
After two weeks in hospital, I was finally declared free of the infection, and allowed to go home. My flatmate didn't stay around for much longer, as I think he struggled with the idea of someone who couldn't work, and probably was also a bit worried about whether I was contagious.
Being home was just the beginning of recovery. Two weeks in hospital had been unhelpful to say the least for my fledgling business, and now I was so weak I could barely walk, had lost all hearing in one ear, which happened to be the one I was accustomed to answering the phone with, and due to the ear damage, had no sense of balance. The hearing loss was emotionally distressing as well, as I was a keen musician, and suddenly having no directional hearing made participating with other people difficult. It also made my social anxiety worse, as being in situations with multiple conversations going on at once became a whole lot harder.
What made a huge difference to my recovery was kindness from other people. My parents took a financial hit to rental income to ensure I continued to have a place to live. I remember one client, who when told I couldn't drive, came and picked me up and took me to his home office so that I could fix his computer. When I was in hospital, I was told later that people from many different church denominations who knew me had been praying for me, and many of them followed that up with practical support after I came home. Even introverts need community, just in modest doses that we can cope with.
I had to go back on a benefit for a while, this time as a sickness beneficiary, but I found that trying to earn something for myself when I had enough strength to work, and having to deal with all the declarations and impact on my benefit as a result of any money I earned, was too stressful, and I gave up the benefit, in hindsight, sooner than I should have done, as it resulted in years of struggling to get ahead.
Humans are not polar bears leading solitary lives, and very few, if any, can claim to be truly self-made, as wealth itself comes from the very social act of someone else being prepared to trade something with you. I certainly learnt self-reliance and resilience, but that did not mean doing everything entirely for myself. It did mean learning to use what resources I had on hand in efficient and sometimes creative ways. As I recuperated at home, I used what precious internet time I could afford to learn about the code behind the internet, and I was soon learning how to hand code web pages. I also used the internet to establish friendships, when at the time, that was something of a novelty.
In a sense, the web site that you're visiting now is a consequence of what I learned during my convalescence, as both the new skills I acquired, and frustration at lack of information about Marlborough on the internet at the time, led me to do something about it. There were no tools like Wordpress, or Weebly, or Wix, back then, so I had to figure out everything for myself.
I had a couple of chooks at the time, and plenty of silver beet in the garden (which was a minor miracle, as chooks and silver beet are almost mutually exclusive), and I worked out with some flour, and some dripping, I could make very cheap quiche, which is what I lived on when money was particularly scarce.
With the current lock-down in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, I actually feel very relaxed. I've known what it is to be isolated at home as the consequence of an infectious disease with nothing but the internet and phone for connection to the outside world, but this time, I'm not recovering, I have an internet connection that is hundreds of thousands of times quicker than what I had back in 1996, is considerably cheaper, I still have my garden, but this time with all the abundance of autumn fruit harvest, and I'm not on my own, as I have my wife and daughter with me. My wife is no stranger to social distancing. In the autumn of 2015 she was completing an intensive regime of chemotherapy which left her immune system shattered, so the slightest infection could have been deadly for her. We'd spent a very different summer that year, but in hindsight, perhaps it's prepared us well. Our daughter was only a preschooler at the time, but she had to learn quickly about careful hand washing, and not coughing or sneezing on mummy.
Ironically, I have plenty of work for now, as the skills I learnt recovering from an infectious disease 24 years ago are actually rather useful at this time as people adapt to working from home. I have so much to be grateful for. In spite of work, I'm trying my best to find time to write, as I know many people will be going through the same feelings I went through when my world was turned upside down overnight all those years ago, even if they don't actually get sick, as sudden, unexpected confinement to home can be as much a mental challenge as any physical illness. During my wife's cancer treatment, a friend encouraged me to use my creative abilities to keep my mind off the situation. I wrote a book of poetry and photography about the Wither Hills on my back doorstep, and subsequently followed it up with a sequel about the Taylor River. In the last week I heard from someone who bought one of my books, who told me that they will find solace in my words and images as they self-isolate at home.
Although my deaf ear is still with me as a constant reminder of the fateful time disease almost claimed my life, I sit down at the piano and play music from memory, and if the day is fine, perhaps I'll open the ranch slider, although I'm not sure if the neighbours appreciate it, but it's probably the only live music they'll get to hear for a while.Perhaps I'll also pull my beaten up old piano accordion out of its case and play some tunes from my balcony. In small letters on the back, it says Made in Italy.